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Is DoubleZero a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

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The term fantasy heartbreaker, as coined by Ron Edwards, is not meant to be derogatory. It’s simply a way of assessing a few common flaws that fledgling designers fall prey to. A heartbreaker is a fantasy roleplaying book that did not live up to its potential. Edwards’ essay was written in 2002. Times have clearly changed. I still see a lot of these same issues popping up. In the spirit of intellectual honesty, I had to ask myself:  is DoubleZero a fantasy heartbreaker? Or just a heartbreaker, allowing for an expanded definition of the term to include things in other genres?

The Four Elements of a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

Edwards had four criteria for something to be labelled as a fantasy heartbreaker:

  1. critical perspective of the intervening history of game design,
  2. knowledge of actual fantasy instead of gaming-fantasy,
  3. originality of concepts in mechanics, and
  4. business acumen.

I won’t go into how he devised these criteria, or his rationale behind them. You can read his original essay for that. As I go through each point below, I will explain why I find these points to be relevant two decades later and how I’m applying them.

Critical Perspective of the Intervening History of Game Design

As Edwards was writing primarily about fantasy games, he was largely critiquing games that were one step removed from Dungeons & Dragons. Heartbreakers are largely designed by people who have only played D&D. They are unaware of the other ways to do things that have been established. Many of the mechanics they come up with independently have already been done, and done better, in other systems.

The roots of DoubleZero lay in Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG. It’s not the only system I’ve ever played by a long shot. I’ve been involved with roleplaying for over 40 years. My experience covers a wide array of systems. This includes personal experience with other “espionage” and “modern” systems, including Top Secret, Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, and another personal favorite, Spycraft. There is as much Basic Role Playing in there, as expressed through various  iterations of Call of Cthulhu, as there is JB007.

My design goal was to capture a particular feel, not to clone an out-of-print system. So while that did lean heavily on how JB007 worked, it also incorporated ideas from other systems as well as an original idea or two. I think DoubleZero passes the sniff test here.

Knowledge of Actual Genre Instead of Gaming-Genre

This, for Edwards, came down to building systems and settings inspired by the tropes of Dungeons & Dragons rather than drawing upon the deep well of fantasy fiction. If he had one personal pet peeve that seemed to be a through line in several of his articles on The Forge, this was it. For the most part I agree with him, and expand this to “has the designer read any fantasy other than what’s listed in Appendix N?”.

My goal with DoubleZero wasn’t to faithfully clone Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG. It was not to emulate the James Bond films, Ian Fleming’s original novels, or other JB expanded media like comics or video games. My cited inspirations for the espionage genre include the television series The Sandbaggers, John le Carré’s George Smiley novels, and pretty much anything Len Deighton ever put his name on.

What I truly want the system to be is what I’ve used JB007 for all these years: my go-to system for settings that don’t feature player characters with magic, psionics, or superpowers. So while I’m not copping to a vast knowledge of real-world intelligence operations, that’s also not the point. I know the broader genre, and the applications that I have for the system. DoubleZero passes this criteria, in my opinion.

Originality of Concepts in Mechanics

Edwards was, once again, talking about straight-across copying to D&D with one or two tweaks. If I was intentially creating a retro-clone, then this would be definition have to fail. Since knocking off the original system would have been the intention, I don’t know that this could be counted as a fail.

My goal with DoubleZero was to maintain familiarity. I wanted players and guides to be comfortable with what I was presenting. The system isn’t meant to be groundbreaking. It’s supposed to be a workhorse. Flexible enough to not only handle the espionage/ action thriller genre, but to handle most “real world” settings. I’m going to call this one as wash. While it does exactly what I want it to do, it technically commits one of Edwards’ sins.

Business Acumen

When Edwards wrote this, the industry was a lot different. There was no Kickstarter, and no Itch. RPGNow was only a year old, and it would be another two years before DriveThruRPG appeared. The business model was pretty much to print physical books and either hope to get distribution, or sell them from your website. People would throw their life savings into printing their fantasy heartbreaker, with no knowledge of sales, marketing, or business in general. Seeing your darling in print was a joy, but quickly overshadowed by the boxes upon boxes of unsold books gathering dust.

As for today— angels and ministers of grace defend us from the people who say they want to create art for art’s sake. They take that approach, then complain that they can’t make any money. Too few people seem to understand things like how to make a budget. Or how to control costs, or how to set prices. The details are different, but Edwards’ general critique remains valid.

I have over 150 best-selling titles at DriveThruRPG. For over 4 years I have made a living doing thing. I also have a Bachelors in Business with an emphasis in Entrepreneurship, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. This is an area I think I have covered.

Is DoubleZero a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

My honest answer is: I don’t think so. The things that do align with Edwards’ criteria are intentional design choices. They exist to serve some purpose, rather than being there due to naivete.

About the DoubleZero System

DoubleZero is a percentile based, skill-driven tabletop roleplaying system. It is designed to emulate the action thriller genre, things like the Die Hard movies, Jack Ryan books and films, and the grittier entries in the James Bond franchise. It can be used for any sort of “realistic” modern setting that doesn’t lean into magic, the supernatural, or superpowers. Info Page ¦ DriveThruRPG ¦ Our Shop

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional  roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.

1 thought on “Is DoubleZero a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

  1. If I understood his article correctly, you are not. I think I took away this: He laments that the authors in the examples that he cites are only seeing, and pushing, the variant rule/procedure that sets them apart from the original ((A)D&D), not realising (or unable to see, or unfamiliar with the fact) that most of that has already been done (and often better) in other, non D&D games And they then fail to realise, or ignore, the truly revolutionary other mechanic(s) that they also wrote in their rules.
    In my opinion you do not make that mistake. I think you have a clear understanding of what you wanted to accomplish, and are aware enough about other systems to not have a hangup about either D&D, or both of the systems that you used to get to DoubleZero.

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